Author: Craig Calcaterra

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper is more of a leader than Papelbon


I wrote all of this before the Nationals suspended Jonathan Papelbon, and I suppose in some ways it’s now mooted. I mean, the Nationals clearly agree that Papelbon was in the wrong here, and it’s ultimately their word that matters most. Still, we’re gonna all argue about this stuff again at some point because all baseball arguments recur over and over again, so it’s probably still worth saying. Anyway:

I am not one of those people who think that, just because I like a player’s game, he’s any kind of a leader or a role model or a good person or anything like that. Far from it. Which is to say that I am 100% open to the possibility that Bryce Harper is a jerk. I have no idea if he is. Neither do you. His coworkers have a pretty good idea, I presume, but unless they’re willing to put their cards on the table about that — and they’re not, because ballplayers generally don’t talk out of school — we can’t really know that either.

But there is certainly a strong thread of “Harper is a punk” floating around among people who don’t know any better. Some of it is insanely overt, based on the sentiments of many commenters and fans. We’ve seen that for years, of course. Ever since Harper was on the cover of magazines as a teenager. An anonymous scout once said he was a “bad, bad guy,” everyone nodded in agreement because it feels good to nod in agreement when we feel like we know things only insiders know, and it has taken on a life of its own. Hell, maybe it was true five years ago. The kid was 17 then and a LOT of 17-year-olds are jackassses. It sort of doesn’t matter because he’s 22 now and 22 year-olds are rarely the same as their 17-year-old selves. Maybe one day we’ll get a new assessment of the guy.

For now, though, people are sticking with the old one, and in today’s discussion of the Bryce Harper-Jonathan Papelbon dustup, we’re seeing quite an undercurrent of the Harper-as-the-bad-guy meme. But not just from fans nodding along with five year-old intelligence. Former player C.J. Nitkowski’s column this morning implied it and his followup in response to critics strongly suggests that Harper has something to learn out of this. Reliever LaTroy Hawkins is on that train too. A lot of people are framing this as an issue of veteran vs. younger player with the bone of contention being Harper’s alleged lack of hustle on a pop fly and the spark of the fight being Papelbon correcting him.

This is madness.

There is zero chance whatsoever that, yesterday, Papelbon was taking issue with Harper’s hustle in anything approaching an honest and genuine way. Or that, even if it did bug him as a professional, his reason for calling Harper out publicly about it was in furtherance of baseball ethics. I mean, Papelbon has been around for a long time and he’s played with a LOT of guys who don’t run out fly balls and I can’t recall him ever speaking up about it before. The dude broke in on a team led by David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez for Pete’s sake. At least with respect to getting down the line on popups they make Bryce Harper look like the bastard son of Pete Rose and Lenny Dykstra.

No, the reason he did so was because last week Bryce Harper took public issue with Papelbon throwing at Manny Machado. Given Papelbon’s lack of a leadership track record, it’s a pretty safe assumption that that what was animating Papelbon. He simply does not say a thing to Harper if not for Harper’s comments. So that requires us — in order to really assess this situation — to take Harper’s comments into consideration.

Those comments were themselves somewhat unorthodox in that, again, they were a public rebuke of a teammate. But they were a correct rebuke. They arguably displayed some leadership. And they were, if one looks at them objectively, possibly even brave.

The Nationals were still mathematically alive last Wednesday night as they took on the Orioles. And they were down by a run in the top of the ninth when Papelbon, quite intentionally, hit Machado. That put a base runner on in a close game and got the Nationals’ best relief pitcher ejected, each of which hurt the team. It likewise put Harper — the Nationals’ best player — at risk of being hit at some point in the near future. Indeed, that was the substance of Harper’s comment. Any player who gets hit could get hurt and having your best player get hurt while you’re still technically alive for a playoff spot is a very, very bad thing. So, on at least three levels, Papelbon did something stupid that hurt his team.

Pointing that sort of thing out is not what a lot of ballplayers do, but Harper was 100% correct in his assessment of Papelbon’s actions and saying so took some guts. It took guts to say, in as conservative a world as baseball is, that perhaps, after 150 years of dumb unwritten rule enforcement, maybe it makes more sense not to put guys at risk of injury with retaliation pitches. Maybe, to quote, Harper, he’s not alone in thinking such things are “tired.” And if he’s not alone, maybe his saying so will inspire more players to be more vocal about it. Maybe, several years from now, more people speaking up about that sort of thing like Harper did will lead to a game in which guys don’t throw 93 m.p.h. fastballs at people’s heads because they don’t like the cut of the batters’ jib. If so, Harper, perhaps unwittingly, will have proven himself to be something of a leader.

So, in totality, maybe this little drama isn’t about Bryce Harper’s lack of hustle, bad attitude and alleged lack of professionalism. Maybe it’s not about a veteran taking issue with a young player’s failure to play the game the right way. Maybe it’s about a young man showing some maturity and, frankly, some bravery in calling out dumb headhunting orthodoxy and some waning superstar with a known history of being an immature jackass not liking it all that much because, at some point soon, his seniority is all he’ll really have.

Perhaps that’s way too charitable of an interpretation in Harper’s favor, but I find it far more plausible than an explanation in which the sage veteran Jonathan Papelbon is taking the reins of leadership and treating the young Bryce Harper to a teachable moment.

Nationals suspend Jonathan Papelbon for four games

Jonathan Papelbon

The Nationals just issued a statement announcing that they have suspended Jonathan Papelbon for four games. This, combined with his three game suspension for hitting Manny Machado last week — which Papelbon has now decided to accept, likely under pressure from the team — means that his season is over.

In the statement Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said “the behavior exhibited by Papelbon yesterday is not acceptable. That is not at all in line with the way our players are expected to conduct themselves, and the Nationals organization will not tolerate it in any way.”

A big question now is what the Nats intend to do with Papelbon next year, for which he is under contract. A bigger question is how a Major League Baseball team doesn’t understand how baseball works. At least, according to some anonymous veterans.

David Ortiz: “I earned my [expletive]”

Boston Red Sox's David Ortiz reacts after lining out during the  second inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Boston, Wednesday, July 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Rob Bradford of WEEI notes that yesterday David Ortiz made his 600th plate appearance of the season. Per the terms of his contract, that maximizes his vesting option for 2015.

It had already been triggered with a lower number of plate appearances and his physical condition, but that was just for $10 million. There were escalators in place for various plate appearances thresholds after that, however, going up to $11 million at 425, $12 million at 475, $13 million at 500, $14 million for 525, $15 million for 575 and now $16 million.

An interesting contract structure to be sure, but one which suits an aging player. And one which Ortiz takes pride in maxing out:

“I earned my [expletive] . . . When I signed my last contract I wanted the team to be happy. But the most important thing was that for all the people who talked [expletive] about me talking about a contract, I wanted them to shut the hell up, too. I did something so I could earn it,” he said. “Some people say the team always gives me things and I don’€™t earn it. I’€™ve heard people say I sound greedy when I talk about contracts. But it’€™s not greedy, it’€™s just the way it is.”

Ortiz did get a lot of crap for positions he took in previous contract talks. But he’s pretty open and honest about it being about the money. Owners certainly think that way about the decisions they make regarding players and their contracts and no one ever says boo to them. While it may be surprising to hear a player say that too, he ain’t wrong.


Former players think Papelbon was right? WHA?!

Washington Nationals closing pitcher Jonathan Papelbon reacts when Michael Morse strikes out for the final out in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Thursday, July 30, 2015, in Miami. The Nationals defeated the Marlins 1-0. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

C.J. Nitkowski’s latest column over at Fox has me shaking my head. In it he relays the response of former ballplayers he knows to the Bryce HarperJonathan Papelbon fracas yesterday. And the overwhelming sentiment: Papelbon was in the right.

Maybe not about actually choking Harper — it’s actually surprising that no one mentions that or the notion of violence at all, making me wonder what Nitkowski actually asked them — but with the idea that Harper was wrong to not run out a fly ball and Papelbon was right to police the young kid for not “playing the game the right way.” The quotes are pretty incredible, actually, at most taking issue with the timing of Papelbon going after Harper, but generally agreeing that he was right to police Harper in some way.

Nitkowski himself sums it up thusly:

These quotes are the most objective and knowledgeable viewpoint you’ll get on this matter. These are from current and former players who don’t have a bias and come from perspectives closer to the current game than anything else you’ve read. These guys clearly respect the player that Harper is, but not the way he’s handled himself at times in his career, especially on Sunday.

Papelbon is everybody’s favorite punching bag but it’s not deserved here. This is a game that governs itself; it always has and always will. No one is above giving his full effort every time. When you don’t, there will be a veteran teammate there waiting to remind you. Sometimes that might result in a fight and that’s OK. This is not your office.

With all respect to Nitkowski, whose work and analysis I generally agree with, this is utter bunk.

For starters, the people he quoted are not objective at all, even if they are knowledgable. They are fully on the side of a baseball’s longstanding orthodoxy which expects young players to shut up and be humble, old players to tell them how to act and for deviations from such norms to be policed with beanballs, verbal attacks, hazing and other assorted garbage.

Which, yes, has long been a part of the game. And, in a certain sense it’s eminently reasonable for some of that to be part of the game, at least in the broad strokes. It makes sense for there to be a presumption that veterans teach younger players how to carry themselves and younger players learn from and emulate veterans. In a broad sense it’s totally understandable for disagreements between teammates not to be made public. In a broad sense it’s understandable for there to be somewhat different standards of behavior for older players and less experienced players. These are all norms which exist in many walks of life and all norms which understandably attach to baseball. And likely always will.

But when it comes to Harper and Papelbon, those norms simply do not apply. Papelbon wasn’t fostering a young, misguided kid, he was biting back at Harper because Harper called Papelbon out over beanballs last week rendering this, at best, a situation in which he thinks two wrongs make a right. He is not a team leader whose job it is to set misguided players straight, he’s a rented reliever who has been with the team for two months. He wasn’t teaching Harper to “play the game the right way,” he was physically assaulting him. And, no matter how damn young Harper is, he is the best player on the team and in the league and has done more to help the Nationals win this year than any other player. Hell, at times he’s been the only one who has helped the Nats at all.

All of that takes this out of the the construct in which Nitkowski and the players he quotes are operating. But to be honest, I’m not even gonna grant the construct full validity.

Most of what’s wrong with sports and sports discourse is rooted in the idea that sports have different rules, ethics and implications than all other walks of life. That a clubhouse is 100% different than an office (note Nitkowski’s citation to that). That, in other jobs, people are totally OK with slackers. That there are no other means of policing bad behavior than the way athletes police such behavior. I’ll never claim to know how a baseball clubhouse works or what challenges athletes face — I have no ability to do that at all and never will — but the notion that the world of sports is somehow wholly alien and separate from every other walk of life is an unsupportable conceit and reference to it as nothing more than an appeal to unchallengeable authority.

Yes, athletes have skills the rest of us do not have and their mastery of those skills are things that we cannot understand like they can and, usually, cannot explain like they can. But notions of how human beings treat other human beings, the ethics of interpersonal relationships and the idea of behavior, comportment and, most especially, the use of violence or intimidation are not subjects which we cannot understand. They are things we all deal with in our lives and in our jobs and, while they certainly differ in the details and in degrees, they do not differ in kind.

Especially not to the point where, when we look at one person assaulting another we must say “Hey, who are we to judge? Maybe we should defer to the other ballplayers here? After all, this is not our office.”